The Inner Truth Of Religion

As we have already seen, in his "Editor's Counterpropositions," Lessing boldly insisted on the "inner truth" of religion. He emphatically declared, "The [Christian] religion is not true because the evangelists and apostles taught it. They taught it, rather, because it is true. The written traditions must be interpreted by their inner truth, and no written traditions can give a religion inner truth if it has none."33

What, then, is the "inner truth" of religion? On the face of it, this concept gives the impression that it blends easily with the notion of "subjective religion."34 For people easily associate it with a theological concept that has a mystic or spiritualistic background.35 In fact, as we saw in the preceding chapter, Goeze blamed Lessing for contrasting the inner truth of the Christian religion and the biblical tradition as if they were opposites. According to Goeze, Lessing's statement about the difference between the two is nothing but "empty words." Hence he asks the following question: "Where does he wish to obtain the knowledge of the inner truth of the Christian religion if not from the scriptural traditions, or from the writings of the evangelists and apostles, in proper connection with the writings of the Old Testament?"36 Goeze evidently has misgivings about the idea of the inner truth of religion. He fears that such inner truth, when separated from the historically given and objective foundations for the biblical traditions, may lapse into subjective religion or arbitrary religious subjectivity.

Against Goeze, however, Lessing boldly asserts:

This inner truth is not a kind of wax nose (wächserne Nase) that every knave can mold as he likes to fit his own face. Where [do I] get the inner truth? From the Christian religion itself. That is why it is called inner truth, the truth that requires no authentication from without (die Wahrheit, die keiner Beglaubigung von außen bedarf)?1

This statement makes it clear that for Lessing the inner truth of religion, insofar as we adhere to his intention, is a truth immanent in the religion itself. Its evidence consists primarily and solely in the object (subject matter) of the religion, and yet we are capable of feeling and experiencing this truth through personal commitment.

This point may be illustrated by reference to the Parable mentioned in chapter 3. According to the parable, there are only a few who find satisfaction in "working inside the palace" and are capable of saying, "It is enough that at every moment we learn that the most beneficent wisdom fills the entire palace, and that from this source nothing but beauty and order spread over the entire land."38 More to the point, it is only these few who can truly understand the nobility and grandeur of the palace from within. In this parable, the nobility and grandeur of the palace are objective; they are independent of the subjective feeling of those who feel it noble and grand. But it is only when this nobility and grandeur are felt and experienced that the nobility and grandeur of the palace are understood as such. And who is it that can feel and experience these qualities? Neither observers, who are enchanted with its outward appearance, nor architectural connoisseurs, who show too much interest in the original plan, but only those who live and work inside the palace and experience that its design is consistent and that the palace is full of light.

In the "Editor's Counterpropositions," shortly before mentioning the "inner truth" of religion, Lessing observes in a remark we have quoted more than once: "For him it is simply a fact, this Christianity which he feels to be true and in which he feels blessed. When the paralytic experiences the beneficial shocks of the electric spark, does it worry him whether Nollet or Franklin or neither is right?"39 In this case too, "the beneficial shocks of the electric spark" constitute a scientific phenomenon that can be verified objectively. The doctor can demonstrate with objective data how electric therapy is good for paralysis. The therapy is not efficacious because it makes the paralytic feel good. Its efficacy is essentially independent of how the patient feels about it. Nevertheless, no one can understand the beneficial shocks of the electric spark better than the paralytic who feels and experiences them.

To help the reader understand Lessing's concept of the "inner truth" of religion, we would like to cite, in support of this concept, H. Richard Niebuhr's well-known theory of "inner history." According to Niebuhr, there are two kinds of history: "history as lived" and "history as seen." He brilliantly explains the distinction by taking as an example "a man who has been blind and who has come to see."

A scientific case history will describe what happened to his optic nerve or to the crystalline lens, what technique the surgeon used or by what medicines a physician wrought the cure, through what stages of recovery the patient passed. An autobiography, on the other hand, may barely mention these things, but it will tell what happened to a self that had lived in darkness and now saw again trees and the sunrise, children's faces and the eyes of a friend.40

Niebuhr therefore calls history as seen "outer history" and history as lived "inner history," stressing the importance of making a clear distinction between the two.41

Niebuhr's distinction between inner and outer history is not meant to devalue objective historical description. But implicit in his claim for the validity of inner history is that it is the patient, not the doctor, who actually feels or experiences the results of the cure or operation. Likewise, in Lessing the efficacy of the electric therapy is substantiated by the paralytic who undergoes it. And when the paralytic experiences the beneficial shocks of the electric spark, the question of who discovered electricity, or whose scientific theory is correct, is not of the least importance to the patient. What is important is the fact that he or she has been cured or is being cured. The same, Lessing holds, is true of religion. According to him, the truth of a religion is recognizable only when one participates in it from within, not when it is objectified in theory or doctrine.42 This, in brief, is what Lessing means by his concept of the inner truth of religion.

This being the case, Lessing's idea of the inner truth of religion is by no means the "subjective religion" that Goeze attacks. Nor is it a truth of reason which, like mathematical truth, is capable of demonstration by strict methods and procedures. It is a truth based on the evidence of feeling, not on that of reason.

Why, then, does Lessing use such an ambivalent concept? In our opinion, which is based on Harald Schultze's judgment, Lessing, in view of biblical studies that used the modern, historico-critical method, shrewdly perceived the unworkability of Lutheran orthodoxy's theological apparatus. He adhered to the truth of the Christian religion, but wanted to substantiate its truth claim in a way different from the way of Lutheran orthodoxy. He sought to find the ultimate basis for Christian faith in the believer's inner experience and feeling, which were supposedly invulnerable to historical criticism. Thus he invented the problematic concept of the "inner truth" of religion.

If this interpretation is correct, it may be possible to regard Lessing's concept of the inner truth of religion as a harbinger of a direction in modern theology advanced in later years by Schleiermacher.

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